Is Central so Essential?

Is the downtown revival real, or is it just Disney?

I suppose by now the 2010 Census is passe, or even denounced.  But I’m bit behind the times, so I’m still thinking about it, and it’s taken me this long to parse some of the results.  By which I mean I’ve made a list of the downtown populations of MSAs of 1 million or more as reported in the 2000 and 2010 censuses, along with the metro and central city populations.

Specifically, I was a bit skeptical of some claims that downtowns have been resurgent in the last decade.  The condo craze was an undisputed fact, mostly a result of cheap and easy credit, that mostly affected the central areas of cities.  But was it big enough to really have an effect on population?  And was it nationwide or limited to major cities like San Francisco or trendy cities like Portland?

The first two problems with answering those questions are both of definition.  First, the definition of the word downtown has shifted subtly over time, so that now it seems to have different meanings depending on the type of place it is in.  The word originally referred to the older section of the city, which was located down hill from the newer suburbs.  This was quickly supplanted with a meaning of referring to the main business district of the city, which is the definition commonly found in dictionaries.  Now, however, it is often used to refer to a relatively dense or mixed-use area, or an area with a New Urbanist form, which could be pretty much the same as any strip mall, only with parking in back.

Downtown or not?

So what counts as downtown?  In St Paul, the Upper Landing area was developed with a high-density urban form in an area close enough to the traditional downtown that it could be considered a new urban appendage.  But traditionally this area would not have been considered downtown, at least not since Little Italy was cleared.  So should its growth be credited to downtown or to the rest of the city?

I took the coward’s route – I tried to use local definitions of downtown.  First, if I could find a media report – blog or newspaper – that defined a city’s downtown, I let them do the work for me.  If I couldn’t find a media report, I used the municipality’s definition – most cities have an area within boundaries that they’ve called Downtown, even if just for economic development.  There were a handful of cities where I just trusted Wikipedia, because I couldn’t find a municipal definition.  Also some of the bigger cities I made up definitions of Greater Downtown Areas because the official definition was too small an area.  For example Chicago’s Loop is defined as south and east of the Chicago River, west of the lake and north of Roosevelt, making a bit more than half the land area of Minneapolis’ official inside-the-freeways, west of the river Downtown (1.49 sq mi for the former and 2.71 sq mi for the latter).

Once I had a definition of a downtown, I used the New York Times 2010 Census map to get the 2010 population and rate of growth, from which I extrapolated the 2000 population.  Because official downtown definitions don’t always follow the boundaries of census tracts, I just tried to approximate as best I could.  Feel free to download my data for definitions of particular cities and the actual census tracts I used.

Now that I’ve provided a convoluted introduction, let’s get to the results.  The answer is yes, downtowns nationwide grew in the last decade.  Only 6 of the metros with a million-plus population (hereafter referred to as MPMs, for Million-Plus Metros) had downtowns that didn’t grow in the last decade, out of 51 total.  Just when you thought we were going to get to some graphs, that brings up another peculiarity.  As Twin Citians know, some regions have more than one regionally important downtown.  In those cases I combined the populations of both downtowns to gauge the regional downtown population.  That of course involved calculating them separately, whereupon I found that in Riverside-San Bernardino, one of the downtowns grew while the other shrank (albeit by an insignificant 30 people).  So the combined downtown population grew by 5%, but San Bernardino grew by 9% while Riverside shrank by -.27%.  Both of them appear to actually be suburbs of LA anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s something to keep in mind when the graphs start flying.

Let’s kick it off with a straight up graph of population change, absolute and percent, in the 51 MPMs:

This graph is pretty hard to read because of some mega outliers, specifically Manhattan, which grew by 49,174 (the next greatest growth was LA 15,445), and Dallas-Fort Worth, which grew by 306% (the next greatest percent growth was Charlotte with 134%).

The average growth for all MPMs was 41%, which sounds impressive until you hear the average absolute growth, which was only 4,493 people.  That’s chicken scratch next to the average growth for the entire metro area across the 51 MPMs, which was 315,214.  So let’s look at that.  Here’s a graph of how downtown growth rates compared with metro area growth rates and central city growth rates:

I cut off the Dallas-Fort Worth downtown growth rate for this one so the other rates would show up better.  As you can see, downtowns had much stronger growth rates overall than metro areas and especially central cities.  However, that pattern isn’t across the board – around 10 metros on the left side of the chart had greater metro area and central city growth rates than downtown growth rates.  I classified the metros by census bureau region, and if you look at the average across regions, you start to see some different patterns:

This table doubles as an eyesight test

On this one, the weird result is the Northeast’s Central City, which shows a percent decrease but an absolute increase.  It’s all New York’s fault – because it increased by 166,855 people (the largest central city increase), it drives the average way up.  But for a city the size of New York, that’s only a 2% increase in population, not enough to offset the large percent declines of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Rochester (-11%, -9%, and -4% respectively).  I guess that’s my warning not to read the percent columns as an expression of the numerical columns.

Anyway, the regional differences become clear.  The South had about twice the average rate of downtown population change of any other region, but it also had a much lower numerical change.  This likely accounts for the impressive-sounding rate of change for all cities, of which the South makes up close to half.  Still, it’s impressive that a region that had almost nothing that could be considered urban now has its first taste of city life. Conversely, the Northeast had the lowest average downtown population rate of change and the highest average numerical change, reflecting the higher existing populations in the downtowns of that region.

Looking at the average downtown population across regions seems to bear this theory out, as the South has the lowest average population in 2000:

And again the South comes out poorly when looking at the cities with the 10 largest downtown populations, with only Raleigh representing the vast region:

But Raleigh also exposes the methodological weakness of this whole venture, as does the top 10 table in general.  The only definition I could find of Raleigh’s downtown runs east to Raleigh Blvd, so it includes a couple square miles of streetcar suburb.  If I were to define Downtown Raleigh, the eastern border wouldn’t run past East St, so the definition I used is about twice the actual size even in my own estimation.

On the other side, you may have noticed that I used the entire borough of Manhattan for downtown New Y0rk.  You may disagree with that decision, and if so you’re not alone – I do, too.  The problem is that the part of Manhattan sometimes called “Downtown” actually has fewer jobs and office space than Midtown Manhattan, so each area would conflict with some definition.  Since even the northern tip of the island has characteristics that could be considered a downtown in any other American city, I decided to look at the borough as a whole.  That approach is probably unfair to other New York business districts, such as Downtown Brooklyn, that probably could have qualified for this study.  It also makes for a freaking huge outlier, although Lower and Midtown Manhattan are also outliers, with six times the 2010 population of the next biggest city, and 7,000-15,000 greater increase in population than the next largest increase (download my data if you’re curious about specifics).

Manhattan was the only city where I included a greater downtown area for comparison’s sake, although as mentioned above I did create them for Chicago, Miami and San Francisco – that’s the kind of inconsistency that comes from dealing with this much data in your spare time.  My policy of generously allowing cities to define their own downtowns created its own problems, especially when looking at the percent of metro area population that lives downtown, where four Southern cities appear in the top ten:

Note that New York has been omitted from the two above charts, and that while in general downtowns’ share of metro area population went up, it didn’t go up as much as the two charts seem to show due to my neglect to maintain the same scale for the right axis.

So after a decade that was widely hyped for downtown growth, only seven cities have downtowns that contain 1% or more of their metro’s populations.  While the ubiquity of downtown growth may have been exceptional, the growth itself may not have been significant, or significant enough to make a difference regionally.  Downtown growth mostly beat regional growth in the relatively sluggish decade (see the chart Downtown, Central City, and Metro Area Growth Rates above), and downtowns as generally small portions of metro areas maybe shouldn’t be expected to ever contain a significant portion of the metro population.  But central cities grew much less consistently (as we know here in the Twin Cities), with 21 central cities shrinking, and of the 30 that grew, only maybe a dozen did so without annexation or greenfield development.  Moreover, as I attempt to show on the most confusing chart I’ve ever made, the vast majority of central cities lost share of metro area population, that is, the suburbs grew faster than they did:

So while downtown growth was a national trend, we’re not talking about an overthrow of the suburban realm quite yet.  Still, even a small shoot of urban growth is encouraging in the vast mire of suburbanism that has festered for the past few decades.  Things change slowly in our litigation-fueled, Nimbyful society, and there are indications that demand for urban places exceed the supply.  The fringe still seems to be freckled with vacancy while apartments rise in the central city, which indicates a lot taller bars in the charts of downtown growth after the 2020 census.

If you care to dig through my data, here is the xlsx.  Feel free to dispute the downtown definitions – more likely than not I’ll agree with you.

Traveling in Moderation: Grand Marais

The New Highway #61, Clement Haupers, 1939

Clement Haupers was the Minnesota director of the Federal Art Project for the WPA, so it’s relatively safe to assume he meant this painting as a sincere celebration of the new roads – Highway 61 was among the earliest – that were being built to link the people of the vast American landscape by motorcar.  I gotta say, 72 years later it looks to me like a silly cartoon, bathing a banal piece of infrastructure in golden grandeur, but that may partly be from seven decades of grime, smoke and congestion accumulating on what Haupers depicted as a clean, clear silver strip.

Haupers seems to have ranged around the state quite a bit as Federal Art Project director, and there are few clues in the watercolor above as to what segment of Highway 61 is depicted.  Except for the suggestions of an agricultural quilt along the roadside, the hilliness of the gleaming highway in the landscape could be found along the north shore, where Highway 61 was constructed as North Shore Drive in the 1920s.

Where do you turn? Marohn's shot of Grand Marais' edge

The current iteration of North Shore Drive (though the name seems to have fallen out of use) as it passes through Grand Marais was justifiably excoriated by Charles Marohn at Strong Towns a few months ago.  Though mercifully not a 4-lane divided monstrosity, 61 displays a lot of highway strip tendencies, and features the suicide center lane on the edges of town to accommodate driveways encroaching into pedestrian space.  Bafflingly, the center left turn lane extends for long segments where no businesses exist, leading to a wide-feeling, speed-inducing road.

Highway 61 near the center of Grand Marais (by Charles Marohn again)

Marohn’s main point as I interpret it is that Highway 61, like most roads built today, does a poor job of differentiating between rural areas, where transportation is usually the primary function of the facility, and town areas, where the function is more multifaceted.  Highway 61 in Grand Marais is certainly guilty as charged, with the section running through town barely narrower than the strip at the edge.  Yet somehow it works better than any other street I’ve seen in Minnesota.  Motorists rarely fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks, which are marked and spaced around 350 feet apart.

I think this is mostly due to the special nature of the place rather than the design of the road.  For one thing, you arrive at Grand Marais about 80 miles down Highway 61 from the last real town, Two Harbors.  Everything between is more of a crossroads, so when you hit a place with side streets, you notice even before you hit the stop light.  But just because motorists know people live in a place doesn’t mean they’re going to slow down for them, much less stop to yield.  I think what is unique about Grand Marais is that many or most of the motorists are tourists themselves, and therefore less likely to be in a hurry.

Highway 61 in Grand Marais is rare for Minnesotan roads in that it was sliced through the originally platted grid at an angle some decades after the town was founded.  Except for the interstates, I can’t think of another Minnesotan town that experienced this sort of transportation-based renewal.  Here is a poorly-scanned bird’s eye view drawn in 1906:

A perfect grid

This photo, which dates to the 1910s, shows no oblique intersection where North Shore Drive would slash through a few years later:

Where is the Drive?

The above photo also shows how sparsely built Grand Marais still was at that time.  When the diagonal Highway 61 was sliced through a few years later, it’s possible no building even stood in its path.  By 1934 there’s a bright white gash through the town, which today is lined with businesses such as Hughie’s Tacos, which occupies a building oriented to the street, and Dairy Queen, which is floating free in a featureless parking plane, so you get the sense the building is oriented to the main grid of the town only coincidentally.

Despite being lined with businesses, it would be a mistake to think of Highway 61 as Grand Marais’ Main Drag.  That function is filled by the traitorously-named southernmost parallel in the grid, Wisconsin St, and its perpendicular, Broadway (even the dwellers of this remote northern outpost were sophisticated enough to realize that the street type of the latter is embedded in its name).

Good fishing here

Wisconsin St is quite the contrast to Highway 61.  Grand Marais certainly fits Nathan Lewis’ bill of hypertrophism, but Wisconsin is surprisingly narrow for its late 19th century vintage.  It’s also been done up into a pleasantly calm street, with bike lanes, generous bump-outs and some weird fake stone-looking concrete.  While the earliest map of the area showed a shore-running road (that being the only road), maps from the time of platting show the road along the North Shore bypassing the town on the north side about where County Road 7 runs today.  However, as old timers will tell you, the real highway to this fishing village is the lake itself, whence trawlers of yore would return laden with whitefish, or come winter sleds towed by teams of dogs would arrive bursting with precious mail from outside.  So you can see why Wisconsin St, which connects the town’s two bays, would be important.

Guess they took this the one day no one was out walking

Today Wisconsin St is instead busy with tourists bursting with pizza or laden with souvenir tees.  The view, the crowd, and the street design combine to create an ideal strolling track, which pedestrians enjoy and vehicles respect.  Since most motorists on Wisconsin are looking for parking, the average speed is very low, and considering I can’t remember ever seeing anyone cycling on Wisconsin, the bike lanes could probably be traded for wider sidewalks.  Still, it’s nice seeing an outstate commitment to bicycling, and I think this might technically be part of the Gitchi-Gami Trail.

Wisconsin St, Broadway (which is almost as good as Wisconsin but gets demerits for slant parking), and Highway 61 combine to define a rich downtown district, with two groceries, a hardware store, a muni liquor, a Radio Shack, a Ben Franklin, two parks, a rose garden, a library, city hall, and the World’s Best Donuts.  Not bad for a town of 1,300 people, in a county of 5,000.  Presumably the tourist dollar accounts for the outsized economy, as well as the low-key, bizarrely respectful drivers.  On the other hand, maybe the thing that has such a calming effect on the tourists does the same for locals.  After all, it’s not so hard to wait for an old lady to cross the street if you get to watch the stunning Lake Superior while you wait.  Slow, safe speeds feel natural when you spend your spare time skiing the slopes of Pincushion Mountain.

Or maybe the good people of Grand Marais are just unusually respectful of the art of driving.  They do, after all, have a plaque in their town memorializing Charles Babcock, the Father of Minnesota Highways:

That's Babcock's plaque under the plywood portaging voyageur

Thanks to Sarah and other descendents of Hungry Jack Scott to whose generosity I owe the delightful strips of my life that have been spent in the beautiful town of Grand Marais.

Over the river or through the woods?

Still waiting for a train at Rochester

Mulad, that wizard of railroad wisdom, reminded me that January 12th is the last day to send in comments on the Alternatives Selection Report for the Chicago-Twin Cities “High Speed Rail” Corridor.  Here are my hastily assembled comments:

To: “” <>
Sent: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:25 PM
Subject: Draft Alt Selections Report comments

I have two criticisms of the Draft Alternative Selections Report:
  1. It seems improper to have eliminated from the universe of alternatives those routes with physical constraints due to former right-of-way having been developed for other uses.  Examples are on pages 4-7 through 4-12 of Appendix A.  While the report properly considers the demolition of the existing uses to be an extreme impact, it does not consider the possibility of constructing a greenfield route around these physical constraints.  Several routes included in the universe of alternative require construction of new main tracks with the potential for extreme impact, the most glaring example of which is the BNSF river route, described on pages 3-14 and 3-15 of the Draft Selections Report.  The BNSF river route is stated on pages 3-14 and 3-15 to require the construction of a third track “in the Mississippi River” but it still garners the highest rating for Route Characteristics.  If it is worth considering routes that require major construction in the form of an additional track in a protected waterway, it should be worth considering routes that may require a few miles of greenfield bypasses of existing physical constraints.
  2. It seems likely that using population bands as a proxy for trip generation underestimated the potential of the Rochester and Madison metro areas.  These metros contain major trip generators in the form of a world-famous medical facility, one of the largest universities in the nation, and a state capital.  The bluntness of measuring route population by means of a band along the entire route rather than in a cluster around stations is another weakness of the Market Size metric, and one that may have tipped the scale towards the selected alternative (which has a fairly high but diffuse population density but one that would likely be just as well served by alternatives that serve Rochester).  However, the bigger problem with the Market Size metric was ignoring the trip generation capabilities of the unique land uses in Rochester and Madison.
Aside from these two criticisms, the alternative selections process seemed to me to be as fair as possible for a mostly qualitative process and impressively thorough, to boot.  While the recommended alternative is incapable of meeting international standards for high-speed rail, the capital upgrades described in the report will be a significant improvement to a vital rail transportation facility, and are both welcome and overdue.
On top of that, I think their last minute switcheroo to prioritizing the route that needs the least capital improvement is a bit fishy, and unfortunate because it resulted in selecting the route that is capable of the least improvement.  I don’t see why they didn’t sneak some more Rochester routes in there, and potentially basketed Zip Rail along with “HSR.”  But I only made it about halfway through the Draft Alternatives Selections Report, so I didn’t feel comfortable piping up about it.  Frankly, any news is good news on the rail upgrade front.  Even if in some distant high-speed future, a different route to Chicago is used, it’s likely that the selected route will still be used for more local rail travel so the improvements won’t go to waste.

Holy numbers, holy grail

One of my holy grails lately has been to figure out how many housing units were built in Minneapolis in each decade of the postwar era.  This grew out of my long-languishing Potential Population Project and the need to find a basis for assuming the average density of new multifamily construction.  For over a year now I’ve been compiling a spreadsheet of buildings and their build year and unit density, adding them manually as I come across them in my job (which is so boring that no more need be said of it).  I now have on my list 39,392 units in 580 buildings built since 1947, which is 60% of the 65,912 units in structures of 5 or more units in the city.

You may be thinking, “what kind of idiot wastes his time on something like that, especially since someone else has already compiled that information and he would have found that by now if he’d only spent some time looking for it.”  Well, I agree with you now, since I’ve figured out an easy and effective way of estimating number of units built per decade using that all-powerful database, the US Decennial Census.

It all started a few weeks ago, when in a post about apartment construction that rambled into Minneapolis population change, I mentioned that the massive drop in population in the 70s was probably due to an after-dinner hiccup of freeway construction and renewal.  I was thinking of 35W through Northeast, which was built in the early 70s, but Froggie pointed out that most of the clearance for that project had been completed by the end of the 60s.

Freeway to be

This leads us to an interesting digression surprisingly early in this post.  Froggie’s correction led me to actually fact-check one of my assertions for once, and after spending some time looking at old aerials, I realized that even more freeway clearance was done in the 60s than I’d thought.  Besides the Northeast portion of 35W, which was built in the 70s but cleared in the 60s, much of 94 on the Northside had been cleared by 60s as well, although it would not be built until the early 80s.

So it turns out that the only freeway clearance that may have extended into the 70s was for Hwy 55, which ended up not being a freeway of course.  Borchert library has an image (5 MB) from 1969 that shows partial clearance:

Only 35 years before LRT

And Historic Aerials has one from 1979 which shows a bit more gone, although obviously I don’t know how much if any of that clearance happened in the 70s:

25 years to LRT

(The above two photos show the intersection of Hiawatha and Lake, with the majority of both images showing the Corcoran neighborhood)

So freeway clearance doesn’t seem to have been a major contributor to population loss in Minneapolis in the 70s.  A 1971 map indicates renewal was probably more of a contributor, with activity in the 70s happening in Seward, Holmes, and perennial HRA punching bags Cedar-Riverside, Hay, and Near North.  It seems likely that some of Plymouth Ave was cleared in the 70s in the distant wake of the riots, and also that a portion of the enclave of suburbs in North and Northeast were built in the 70s, at half the density of the urban fabric they replaced.

For some reason, all these units being destroyed and built up again led to a wall in my brain finally crashing down, allowing understanding to spring through:  The Census tracks building age every 10 years.  If I want to have a good idea how many units were built in any given decade, just look at the Census for the last year of that decade and look at what it reports for units built in the decade prior.   This isn’t the exact number for two reasons, but it should be “close enough” as we say here at horseshoes&  Reason #1 is that some of the units built in the prior decade could also have been destroyed that decade.  My guess is that rarely happens but you never know.  Reason #2 is that censuses are never consistent in the time periods they report.  Here is my compilation of year built data from the 1950 to the 2010 censuses:

Units by structure age in Minneapolis as reported in 1950-2010 decennial censusesese

The table above gives you a sense of the varying time periods reported by the different censuses.  Actually I’ve cheated a bit by cramming decade categories that are off by a year or less into one category, which you can see in the 1970 column, where I added the 1960 to 1964, 1965 to 1968, and 1969 to 1970 categories into the 1960 to 1969 category.   That explains why the number of units built between 1970 and 1979 grew by 1,706 between 1980 and 2000, but not why the number of units built between 1980 and 1990 grew by 1,233 between 2000 and 2010.  That last anomaly is more likely due to another cheat: the structure age data was actually from the ACS rather than the decennial census, as I’ll complain more about later.

So census data suggests that more units were built in the 60s than in any other postwar decade (the 1970 census reports 20,184 units that had been built between 1960 and March 1970), but the city’s total number of units dropped by almost 6,000.  But not enough was done, apparently, to make a significant impact on total population.  You smart people probably figured this out long ago, but in a city as big as Minneapolis, it’s really hard to add or remove a significant percentage of units.

Again using building age data from the Census, I’ve estimated the number of units built each decade, and extrapolated from that and the change in total units to get the number of units destroyed.  In the postwar era, the net change in dwelling units reached a maximum of 7% increase between 1950 and 1960, when some greenfields were still being developed in the far north and south of the city.  Interestingly, the next greatest change in units was the 6% increase between 2000 and 2010 – I’ll get to that in a moment.  In the intervening decades, the change in units has fluctuated between 1% and 3% plus or minus, so that by 2000 the total number of units was only 1500 more than 1970.

The more things change...

As you can see, the change in units in any particular period is relatively small and apparently unrelated to the change in population.  Two notes about the chart above – first, the units destroyed isn’t calculated for 1950 because I didn’t bother to find the total units for 1940 (a brief digression, though – the 1950 census suggests 12,425 units were built in the 40s, which is about 2,500 units more than were built in the 00s).  Second, my method calculated only 298 units destroyed in the 00s, which is almost certainly too low.  I think that is due to the switch to ACS for housing data such as structure age – because the total units recorded in the 2010 census is lower than the total units estimated in the 2005-2009 ACS, I probably should compare it to the ACS report of the units built in the 00s.  Hmm, should I choose consistency or results?

Another factor in play in the interface between population and dwelling units is the vacancy rate.  However, the vacancy rate in Minneapolis has been remarkably steady through the postwar period (at least in the 7 years in which a census was conducted), staying at 4% every year except for 1950 when it was 2%.  Well, there are two more exceptions, and they’re doozies.

The 2010 census found an 8% vacancy rate, which I believe is mostly explained by the foreclosure crisis, although overbuilding or overconverting of condos likely played a part.  As I mentioned, the Northside was the only sector of the city with significant population loss between 2000 and 2010, losing 7,704 residents during that period.  Assuming the average household size of 2.23 persons/unit, that’s the equivalent of 3,455 units, which is about 2% of the total units in 2010.  That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it means that this one sector that represents 15% of population was the locus of half of the increase in vacancy from the typical level of 4%.  (Or it would be, if I hadn’t conjured the number of vacant units there out of other figures.  Still, glancing over maps of foreclosures makes it feel real.)

The other census that found a high vacancy rate was 1990, when it reached 7% – my knowledge of this period doesn’t go much beyond the Bartman, but it might have something to do with the building crime wave that gave us the nickname Murderapolis.  Another explanation may be the Savings & Loan Crisis that peaked just before this census (and eventually led to our current housing crisis due to inept and/or corrupt legislation).  Anyway it seems to have had a similar effect as the 2010 vacancy rate – the population dropped slightly despite an  increase in dwelling units.

Pretty vacant

The above chart shows a flat vacancy rate during the biggest population drops in Minneapolis history, in the 60s and 70s.  And the next chart up shows that change in total units likely played only a small role in the 60s and none at all in the 70s.  So what caused those drops?

As Jon pointed out in his comments on Apartments go boom!, the answer is “in the details of who moves in and out.”  Families moved out and singles moved in, causing the average household size to plummet and the population to plummet with it.  This is borne out by charting average household size against the change in population, which tracks remarkably close:


Of course you can make charts prove anything, but it is just as convincing when you compare the rates of change of the two metrics:


I have to admit that I dropped out of statistics and ended up with a math credit from Maps and Geographical Reasoning, but those numbers are pretty convincing to me.  The only problem is that average household size, more than most metrics, invites more questions than it answers.  It’s more of an indicator of other trends.  What caused the massive drop from 1950 to 1980?  Whatever it was, it wasn’t unique to Minneapolis.  Here are charts of Richfield and St Louis Park:

Might as well be the same town

A bit more suburban

Starting with 1960, these towns follow a similar trajectory in average household size as Minneapolis did.  (1950 was probably a peak in average household size, not to mention total population, for Minneapolis due to the postwar housing shortage.)  In fact, the four other Hennepin County cities for which I have data showed similar or greater decline in average household size in the 60s and 70s.  These suburbs kept growing through the 60s with greenfield development, but as soon as they ran out of land, they mostly ran out of growth.

Population and Avg Household Size for select cities and Hennepin County, 1950-2010

Kind of interesting to see that the county as a whole lost population in the 70s.  Anyway, the best my feeble brain can do to explain this widespread drop is to blame the boomers.  That swollen generation would have come of age in the 60s and 70s, presumably creating smaller households than they came from.  I would add that the boomers and their smaller households likely created demand for smaller units, which fed the construction of housing units in the 60s and 70s seen in an above chart.  This construction trend was metro-wide, and identified at an early stage in some maps that I included in an earlier post.

So while it may seem that size is, in fact, everything, data grail seekers must choose carefully.  The notion that there is one holy grail may be illusory, and the truth may be that the grail can be found in many seemingly disparate measures.  But that doesn’t mean the quest is not worth pursuing, as seekers will encounter many intriguing charts, graphs and maps along the way.

Abandon hope ye who read to here, boredom shall find ye

Jim Lovell visits Planet Woonerf, doesn’t get it

Moonwalk carefully

If there was a prize for most American American, Tom Hanks would be a serious contender.  He’s not big but not skinny, nice but not too nice, and his accent sounds like it could be from anywhere.

Most American of all, he’s baffled by the foreign practice of asking drivers to be aware that children may be playing on some streets.  And as nature takes its course, his confusion turns to mockery of the idea that motorists’ right to drive where they want and as fast as they want be curtailed by children playing in the street.

A few weeks ago Hanks told David Letterman about his visit to the backwards Communist settlement of Eisenhuettenstadt.  Hanks was entertained by the poverty of the city – apparently the stupid reds thought they could build an entire city around processing raw materials.

Dresden, 1945 - why won't they get off their lazy butts and paint the dang house?

Gleeful about the poverty of the commies, Hanks pointed out that when Eisenhuettenstadt was built in the 1950s, they couldn’t afford to paint all the buildings.  Apparently acting in movies like Saving Private Ryan was exceptionally cathartic for Hanks, as he appears to have forgotten about World War II, and how at the end of it most of Germany was a smoldering pile of rubble.

But Tom Hanks saved his payload of scorn for a simple blue sign, showing a car waiting while a family plays in front of their home.  Any man who lives free would be confused by the model Soviet city of Eisenhuettenstadt, with its state-guaranteed employment, nonexistent homelessness and buildings more than 35′ tall, but the notion that a motorist should yield to a child playing in the street?  Hanks has no idea what to make of it, so he sets his phasers on mock, eventually concluding that in the land of the German Shepherd, dogs were verboten.

Hey! What the heck is that? Git off the dang roof!

Well I can’t be mad at Tom for this – he was just too good in Joe Versus the Volcano.  Can someone direct him to wikipedia’s Living Streets page, which lists variants of the sign and the concept of traffic calming in 11 countries?  Too bad there isn’t a word for Living Streets in American.

Some website claims this is Tom Hanks' house. If that's true, he has a terrible Walkscore. But hey, if I was Tom Hanks I would get tired of people pestering me about being Tom Hanks all the time, so I'd probably move to a hillside surrounded by other celebrities too.

Wikipedia: blame definition: to find fault with.

A new year brings the new

The New Year is a time for reflection, for anticipation, and for chugging bottles of champagne while wearing nothing but a diaper.  And, if you live in Minnesota and blog about how people relate in, move about, and construct their built environments, it’s a time for charging forward into a joint internet venture called is a place for Minnesotans* to gather and gab, gossip, and share cool maps.  Lots of awesome folks who are so smart and busy that they mostly haven’t had time to update their contributor profile are writing there.

If one website isn’t enough to get your fix, substitute with social media. has made it on the Facebook and the Twitter already!  That’s twice as much social media as I can handle!  The sheer volume of urbanism will blow your mind!

Come into our parlor....

*Sconnies are also welcome on, as long as they bring Spotted Cow to share